Unite fears for vulnerable as shielding ends

Worried about returning to work? You’re not alone. Amanda Campbell investigates

Reading time: 8 min

There’s no doubt that life in full lockdown was tough even for the most resolutely optimistic of us. Maybe you were a parent trying also to be both an employee and a teacher as well, or someone on furlough who although might seem happy not to work and get paid, worried constantly about the future of your job. You might have been separated from those you love for months. You might have been cooped up in a small flat without a garden completely alone and isolated – or trapped in an abusive and possibly even violent relationship. You might have had to self-isolate, had Covid-19 yourself, or worse still even be related to one of the 45,000 plus people that tragically died from this virus – and you couldn’t be there to say goodbye.

Whichever way you look at it, lockdown was certainly no picnic. And then there was the two million ‘extremely vulnerable’ people with serious underlying health conditions that put them at particular risk from contracting Covid-19 – with possible fatal implications.

While some were bemoaning that their lives were hard because the pub was shut, extremely vulnerable people did not leave their front doors – nor did anyone else in their household – for any reason whatsoever, for 12 very long weeks. It was like being stuck in the shadows, living a half-life, imprisoned – albeit with box sets, reliant on the kindest of neighbours and the bravery of complete strangers, supermarkets deigning to find you some sort of slot usually around 6 am, and council boxes with tins of unusual and rare foodstuffs not seen since the 70s.

I can say all of this because I was one of these people – and am very grateful for all those incredible volunteers who generously helped me. One day towards the end of June I think, they let us out – for exercise only. A momentous day, I remember feeling like I had forgotten how to walk – with my legs taking overlarge steps, or feeling shaky after just walking down the road.

At first being outside was terrifying. Masked and gloved up what would happen if I encountered another human being? Passers-by must have seen the fear in my eyes and gave me a wide berth. Others though took no notice and encroached well into my two – even one metre of safe space.

Now in the dog days of shielding, the end – August 1 – fast approaches and many of the extremely vulnerable – who until now may not even have ventured into a supermarket, are now expected to return to work, to get there by public transport and be hurled, masked but otherwise defenceless, into the alien hullabaloo that is the outside world.

Desperately worried and highly anxious

Of course you don’t have to have been on the ‘extremely vulnerable’ list to feel like that. I know many people who are desperately worried and highly anxious about the thought of not just returning to work, but having to travel there and back on public transport.

Metropolitan commuters in particular – whether they use a bus, train, tram or tube – are rightly concerned for their safety – and for that of their families.

And as the deadline approaches Unite is speaking out on behalf of the vulnerable – but also for all workers, raising some very serious concerns about the government’s plans ‘to pause’ its shielding policy and the challenges that will then face millions in returning to the workplace.

With the news today that Covid-19 cases are up 28 per cent on two weeks’ ago in England, Unite is most concerned that it just might not be the right time to do this.

“The world of work has fundamentally changed since March and as we ease back into the workplace, we need to pay special attention to the concerns of those who have been ‘shielding’ these last five months,” commented Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, today, July 29.

“There is an arbitrary ring to the August 1 date and we question whether ministers have thought through all the implications as thousands of ‘shielding’ workers gingerly return to their place of employment.

“The pandemic has shown that trade unions are the last line of defence when it comes to protecting employment rights and maintaining health and safety standards,” she added.

Cartmail continued, “There has been insufficient time allowed by this announcement for many individuals to mentally adjust to the proposed physical return to work, often on possibly crowded public transport; let alone sorting out with their employer risks associated with travel and workplace assessment.

“In union organised workplaces, Unite reps will be on hand to manage the expected spike in members experiencing extreme workplace anxiety – from mental health issues to maintaining the two metre social distancing rule for this group, rather than the more relaxed ‘one metre plus’ favoured by the prime minister.

‘Cliff edge date’

“Yet, as we have seen with the outbreak of pandemic clusters, unscrupulous employers have brushed aside safety measures. This cliff edge date takes no account of bad bosses and risks plunging extremely vulnerable people into the Hobson’s choice of no income or being put at risk by what is a deadly virus that has already claimed more than 45,000 lives in the UK.”

There is advice available on how employers can make the return to work as safe and reassuring as possible. You can check for yourself on the Unite website; or there’s information from the TUC.

The CIPD ‘the professional body for HR and people development’ is urging businesses to ensure they can meet three key tests before bringing their employees back to the workplace. These tests – in the CIPD’s own words ask:

Is it essential?

If people can continue to work from home employers should at least consider continuing to do that for the foreseeable future. If they cannot work from home, is their work deemed essential to your business operation or could the business continue to use the government’s Job Retention Scheme for longer, giving them the time needed to put safety measures and clear employee guidance and consultation in place?

Is it sufficiently safe? 

Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. Employers should take their time with gradual returns to work to test health and safety measures in practice and ensure they can work with larger numbers before encouraging more of their workforce back.

Is it mutually agreed?

It’s vital that there is a clear dialogue between employers and their people so concerns, such as commuting by public transport, can be raised and individuals’ needs and worries taken into account. There will need to be flexibility on both sides to accommodate different working times or schedules as ways of managing some of these issues.

But back to this news feature – and it’s not just those extremely vulnerable returning to work that Unite is worried about. The union is also deeply concerned about the impact on those who may not be in employment and remain at home. They face losing the support from the national shielding service which provided free food parcels, medicine deliveries and care.

“As the government was too slow to react at the onset of coronavirus, it now appears it could be moving too fast in pausing the ‘shielding’ barrier and removing much valued support for this vulnerable group,” added Gail Cartmail.

“It should not be forgotten that Covid-19 is still prevalent throughout the UK.”

She concluded, “We shall be watching the situation very closely in the nation’s workplaces to see how this rolls out during August and will intervene with management where we feel improvements could be made for the safety and welfare of all employees.”

If you’re worried about returning to work speak to your Unite rep urgently or visit here.

By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite

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